Tech Blog

There will be Blood (Bowl)

by Retired Blogger ‎09-25-2009 02:37 PM - edited ‎09-25-2009 02:46 PM

I've been on a bit of a Games Workshop tear recently. Set off by the announcement of a new edition of the board game Space Hulk, I began to immerse myself in Dawn of War II to get myself feeling all "Warhammer 40k-ey" and was massively surprised to find that even though I've always hated RTS games it's superb (likely to do with the fact it has streamlined the RTS into a small squad commander, with lots of pleasing loot and levelling up). But over the last week I found myself finally unable to resist the call of the new version of Blood Bowl for PC, for a number of reasons.


Classic Blood Bowl--Orcs vs. Humans on a grass pitch.
Well, first the reason I've been resisting it—by all accounts the game is unfinished, but it still costs $49.99 (US!) for a digital download. It just didn't sound worth the money.

But then, as I said, I started to wallow in Games Workshop-based nostalgia. Playing table-top Space Hulk (something I never actually did as a kid) and enjoying the story and setting of Dawn of War II (Warhammer 40k is about as imaginative as sci-fi gets, with its space marines not just "blokes in suits" but a bizarre kind of religious zealot space vikings) reminded me of my youth, pouring over White Dwarf magazine and wishing I could afford an army of plastic and metal miniatures.

Which, to be frank, I couldn't. But at the time Games Workshop had just begun pushing their latest printing of a more modest game—Blood Bowl. Quite easily explained, it's American Football within the fantasy world of Warhammer (rather than the sci-fi world of Warhammer 40k) with a good sense of humour. And best of all, in the box was everything you needed to play, and new "teams" were only eleven models big, making them perfectly reasonable.

So Blood Bowl (3rd edition) was "my" Games Workshop game, with many an hour spent just playing the original two teams that came in the box—orcs and humans—though admittedly I did buy some star players (and some goblins). I even painted up both teams one lovely summer.


Chaos teams are the best. Mine's called Partick Gristle (bonus points if you get the reference).
Yes, I love Blood Bowl. Partly it's the setting, but mostly it’s the game design. A traditional turn-based game, you fight players, throw passes and try and perform running plays, but almost every single action is thrilling thanks to the "turnover" rule which means that if you fail an action it's immediately the other player's turn. Through clever tactical play you can ensure that you lessen this risk, and that's what makes the game great—not only is it satisfyingly punchy, the heavy requirement that you think tactically means it's never boring.

Plus, it scales wonderfully from single games to league play, as it's one of those rare table top games where you can play and "level-up" a team across a season (and thanks to a system of "inducements" you can still play rookie teams, too). It's all very elegant, and exactly the kind of thing that would make a great video game without any tweaking.

So I've been paying attention to Cyanide's Blood Bowl since its announcement (after previously being disappointed with a much earlier PC adaptation that was, frankly, just awful) but its price and the claims that it's flawed and unfinished put me off.

However, I've been reading Kieron Gillen's match reports of his (online) league play with his Blood Bowl team, the Skaven Blighters, and honestly, it's the best games writing I've read in ages. Just gripping stories of gameplay that (if you're familiar with Blood Bowl's rules/play) are joyful to read and as a result I just could no longer resist.

Now, I wish I could say I picked up Blood Bowl and it's everything I've dreamed of and more, but it's really not. Blood Bowl, on the PC, brushes so close to perfection that it's driving me utterly bonkers.

You see, Cyanide have taken everything that's superb about Blood Bowl's physical version and placed it into video game format (though admittedly, they've only managed to get eight teams into the game). If you want (and I do want) you can play a perfect representation of the turn-based original. The problem is that they've failed to take into account anything that makes the video game format unique and worthwhile.

So yes, the game takes all of that pesky dice rolling away from you, and streamlines things so you don't have to personally work out which tackle zones your players are in if they want to dodge or catch the ball. That's brilliant. However, it doesn't give you any of the information you use in the physical game to make decisions. So while the game knows about the tackle zones, it doesn't explicitly tell you what you need to roll to avoid falling down when dodging. The game knows what a character needs to roll to catch a ball. It doesn't tell you. The game knows if your block is going to fail because of another character's skills. It doesn't tell you.

This is unbearable. It's taken one of the finest things about the game—its tactical opportunity—and turned it into a guessing game unless (and this is the most insane thing) you have a copy of the original game's rules printed out in front of you and you're willing to work out the maths yourself.

That is insane. Though probably not as insane as including an in-game tutorial that doesn't teach you anything, meaning if you've never played Blood Bowl before you'll have to return to, yes, the game's original rules to even understand it (I'm aware that even this article will probably seem a bit arcane and confusing to the entirely uninitiated).


Star player Griff Oberwald kicks a man in the face. It's that type of game.
Worse than that, though, are just the absolute deficiencies in the interface anyway. You can't organize your players comfortably, or set up your starting plays outside of a match—you can't even select who is in your starting eleven outside of a match! In a game that should have tooltips, full descriptions of everything you're doing and things like the options for overlaid tackle grids, it doesn't even manage to get the front-end right.

It's embarrassing, especially because Blood Bowl is still so wonderful to play, especially against others.

In fact, playing others is so good—and this version is so tragically ill-conceived—that I almost wish they'd scrap this ridiculously overpriced downloadable version and turn it into a browser-based MMO-alike (you know, sort of like Battlefield Heroes.) It doesn't need to be free-to-play—in fact, it's probably preferable if it isn't—but a small subscription fee to maintain a team in an ongoing global league (of sorts), particularly with Blood Bowl's loyal community (there's a community, FUMBBL, there already, playing a java-based homebrew version) —strikes me as perfect, trusting they can learn from their many, many mistakes with the interface here.

Having said all that, though, Blood Bowl isn't really out in North America yet, and trusting they can get it onto Steam and keep it updated with a Team Fortress 2 level of commitment it could (stress on the word could) turn into the version of Blood Bowl I've always wanted. Heck, I'll even allow them an expansion pack or two if they need to—Blood Bowl's table-top version wasn't quite as good without the Death Zone expansion, anyway…

Message Edited by MathewKumar on 09-25-2009 02:46 PM

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